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Fergus the Forager



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What's been your biggest mistake while foraging?
That would have to have been  a joint mistake between myself and my girlfriend at the time. Amongst several species of fungi that can be confused, two stand out as they are both very common; yet with sufficient care nobody need be poisoned or put off from gathering the edible variety: horse mushroom (Agaricus arvensis) and the yellow stainer (Agaricus xanthodermus) ? the former is good to eat; the latter is poisonous, causing alarming but non-fatal symptoms in most people. Apart from the smell - horse mushrooms have a faint almond-like odour whereas yellow stainers smell of ink, one of the main characteristics used to distinguish between the two for the purpose of identification, is that when cut down the middle with a sharp knife, the yellow stainers flush an immediate canary yellow at the stem base whereas horse mushrooms do not. Hence, for identification purposes, it is always important to keep the stem intact. My girlfriend had harvested both varieties of fungi from the same habitat ? gathering the horse mushrooms with the stem intact whilst harvesting the yellow stainers without the stem (because they had become maggot ridden). These were all presented to me mixed together in the same basket. I checked the intact stems of the horse mushrooms to make sure they weren?t yellow stainers ? they weren?t of course, and assumed that all the other mushrooms were of the same variety. To our great misfortune, vomiting and diahorrea told a completely different story.

Can anyone forage?

That would depend on how loosely, narrowly or broadly you wish to define both the terms forage and food, and whether or not you have a personal interest in the use of metaphor ? as I do! . Generally, one of the great things about foraging ? everything else being equal, especially in terms of good mental and physical health, as well as common sense ? is its radical equality in respect to opportunity. The potential to forage exists in both town and city, and in fact sometimes greater biodiversity can be found within cities ? especially on so-called wasteland and sites classified as brown field, than within certain parts of the countryside ? this is particularly true of the Brighton area!
Other important qualities ? although not necessarily qualifications would include an effort or natural ability to constantly view the world with child-like enthusiasm, approach it with a sense of discovery, and be creative!

Why is foraging so popular right now?

The modern purveyor of freaky facts, fictions, fads and fun ? of the Neil Postman ?Amusing Ourselves To Death? variety, the mass media, has certainly had a big influence in that regard. Of course, general media content isn?t formulated in a cultural vacuum, and no doubt forging?s growing popularity comes as a natural extension or complement to other existing and growing trends: organic food; slow food movement; a return to seasonal and local food consumption; a growing environmental awareness and a need, quite simply, to get out more ? but in rewarding, nature engaged and enjoyable ways!

How did you get into it?
I got into it initially through an interest in butterflies and moths when I was about 7 years old. Hence, the following entry on a recent blog on my website entitled ?The last Supper? ? the title actually refers to the 31st, and last day, of a month-long eating only 100% wild food experiment ( ?At the moment I'm struggling to write a book on wild food. With in that, my aim is to record at least all the butterfly and moth species whose larvae feed on the wild food entries I've included - if not a whole wealth of other creatures large and small. In a more ecologically aware age it is surely time to go beyond the current growing awareness of wild food plants - an awareness divorced from the broader ecological and environmental picture; an awareness that, in seeing wild food plants purely in utilitarian terms vis-à-vis human consumption, risks creating a situation where the last supper really does have an end-of-days biblical resonance for a whole host of insect species. We need more foragers with acute ecological and naturalistic sensibilities such as Richard Mabey and less of the let's-strip-the-countryside-and-deliver-to-swanky-London-restaurants breed.?

Who couldn't you have done this without?
It?s very hard to say, perhaps nobody, perhaps everybody. Certainly the phrase ?standing on the shoulders of giants? seems incredibly apt here. Those giants are not only our Mesolithic Stone age hunter gather ancestors but, in more modern times, people like Euell Gibbons - edible wild plant expert and author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Richard Mabey ? perhaps this country?s best and foremost nature writer and author of the classic Food for Free, Hugh Fearnely Whittingstal ? an inspirational man, Ken Fern of Plants for a Future fame ? name of book and website, my long suffering family, and a whole host of other people I meet or am in contact with.

Best thing you've ever foraged?
I once cycled from my home in Herne bay to Dartington College in Totnes over two days ? camping over night in Winchester. I was knackered and couldn?t bear the thought of cycling back ? but I didn?t have any money for the train. On the last day of my visit I was walking up the road to the college when I noticed some mushrooms in the leaf litter at the side of the path. I can?t remember what they were or even if I ate them. Nevertheless, they were the best things I?ve ever foraged because lying next to them was a muddy £20 note. I got the train back! Both fortunately and strangely such good fortune seems to befall me with delightful regularity ? which isn?t to say that I can?t be damned unlucky sometimes.

What can you / will you never forage?
Ask a silly question???
As a rule I never forage for anything up someone else?s bottom, nose or in their ear canals. I would like to say the same for said parts of my own anatomy. As I said, I would like to say???

What's the funniest myth you've ever heard about foraging?
Unfortunately myths about foraging tend not to be the slightest bit funny ? unless you have a really warped sense of humour of the all-mushrooms-are-edible-but-some-only-once variety, as inaccurate knowledge and information in the guise of myth can have potentially deadly repercussions. A case in point would be the two mushroom foragers I met on a woodland path last year. They had a carrier bag full of mixed mushrooms selected on the basis that, first and foremost, they looked nice and, secondly, both squirrels and slugs had nibbled at parts of them so, they believed, they must be OK for them to eat! This is utter nonsense and, in any case, absurd logic. Even assuming squirrels and slugs react to foods in the same way as humans (which they don?t ? hence new medicines and cosmetics are not tested at the nearest slug or squirrel lab!), surely you would want to see the very squirrels and slugs that had in fact been feeding on those mushrooms to check that they were still alive! This couple were lucky they met me because they had a mixture of the deadly poisonous, edibility unknown and edible ? all of which they had been prepared to return home with and cook up. Heaven help us! Perhaps it did!
How do people react when you tell them what you do?
People in this country usually react with interest, often wanting to come out on a forage or wanting me to check over their local patch with them to see what?s available. Many Chinese people and various others from different cultures assume that I must be very poor!

What are you thankful for?
I?m thankful for so many things. In one of her books ? I think it was Falling Leaves Return to Their Roots: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter, Adeline Yen Mah reflects on being thankful for various things in life, and I totally agree with her. If I recall correctly ? it?s 10 years or so since I read it, she asks us to think about all the good aspects of our lives. For each, whether it be a happy marriage, beautiful children, financial security or a fulfilling job, she asks us to imagine it as being represented by a zero ?0?. She then goes on to say that good health is number one and that, basically, if you don?t have this in the first place then all you are left with is a big bunch of noughts. What a sobering thought!

What do you think about when you're in the forest?
All sorts of things ? some trite and mundane, some inspired and lucid. Yesterday I had the former kind; it would almost not be too far fetched to say that I saw the light ? especially if you consider light as variously nuanced by its different meanings. This morning I received a copy of Slow through the post; that?s the magazine of the slow food movement. The thoughts I had yesterday in the forest chime and resonate incredibly with the words of Nicola Perullo, writing in that magazine. He says, ?Lightness is an ability to see ever wider connections, partly through the tone and flavour imparted by an awareness of our finiteness and partiality. A slow vision is a light vision because it is not anthropocentric. It loosens and weakens the constricting mesh of technocratic and economistic rationality. It makes us take responsibility for ourselves and our community, driven not by the death instinct (the true origin of the deplorable ideology of profit and competition, the bringer of defeat and anxiety), but by the principle of pleasure, enjoyment and joy in the ?perfection? of our finite and imperfect human condition.?

What is the most unusual thing you've ever seen in the forest?
That would have to have been about 10 years ago when I discovered an unconscious forager lying on the ground in the middle of the thickest bramble forested depths of nowhere, having almost just stabbed himself to death with his own knife! Unbelievably, this stupid shaven headed forager had taken it upon himself to carry out an impromptu experiment with an Amanita muscaria  (Fly Agaric) mushroom. He had wanted to see if rubbing a small amount of the peeled red cap onto the back of his head would lead to any psychoactive compounds present being absorbed directly into his blood stream, and was curious to know if this would have an immediate influence upon perception. His insight: never ever to do such a stupid thing again! He collapsed immediately, almost falling on his own knife, and didn?t know whether or not he had lost consciousness for 2 seconds or 2 hours.

What's your tastiest bit of roadkill?
?Roadkill?: that?s soooo last week man (said with an American accent)! I was out foraging last year with Guy Adams from The Independent; we were collecting field blewit mushrooms next to a football pitch when Guy pointed out a perfectly healthy looking (but dead!) lapwing a few feet from where we were crouched picking. Somewhat bemused ? as there were no roads near by, we examined it to try and establish the cause of death: unknown. Then we looked skywards for divine inspiration. We found it: death as an act of God; death as an act of power lines?! I made lapwing and field blewit ravioli in a rich tomato sauce ? delicious!

Is it annoying having to forage in Winter?
Great sex, great food, great books and films, great music, great conversations and so many other great things are so because they are not defined by the monotony of ceaseless continuity but, rather, are punctuated by the magic of stillness, of silence, by the magic of opposites and contrasts. I love winter but only as one of the four great seasons.

What should Joe Public do to start foraging?
Open their eyes and smell the fragrant scent of wild foods dancing on the autumn breeze!


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